Bridge On The River Euphrates

September 2, 2008 Topics: Security Tags: Six-Day WarSoviet UnionThe Israel LobbyIraq War

Bridge On The River Euphrates

Mini Teaser: The much-vaunted surge has made Iraq safer. But more boots in the desert is not the only reason security has improved. As U.S. forces get ready to leave, we have to face some inconvenient political realities.

by Author(s): Colin H. Kahl


AS A CONSEQUENCE of these four factors-a new U.S. strategy, the Sunni Awakening, Sadr's decision to rein in the Mahdi Army and prior sectarian cleansing-a fragile calm has now descended on Iraq. But it remains an open question whether Iraqi leaders will follow through and consolidate these gains. Although there has been some political progress-including the passage of de-Baathification reform, amnesty legislation and a law clarifying the powers of provincial governments-these laws remain vague and their implementation contentious. Al-Maliki's efforts to crack down on JAM have won him kudos among some skeptical Sunni and Kurds, but genuine ethno-sectarian comity remains elusive.

Several steps are needed to bring sustainable stability to Iraq, including comprehensive hydrocarbons legislation outlining the management of the country's oil fields (a major issue for Kurds) and a revenue-sharing law to institutionalize the division of Iraq's oil wealth (a particular concern to Sunni Arabs). Settling governance over various contested territories, especially the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk, is also essential to head off growing ethnic conflict in northern Iraq.

Robinson, however, suggests that key issues related to the division of power in Iraq-including oil, Kirkuk, and the relative weight of the central versus provincial and regional governments in the constitution-may have to wait until a new national government is in place, and she may be right. In the meantime, a series of other steps are needed to lock in and take advantage of the successful cease-fires established during the surge.

Most important, according to Robinson, "is to speedily incorporate all of the vetted Sons of Iraq into the Iraqi security forces or other jobs." Al-Maliki initially embraced the Awakening when it emerged in Sunni-dominated Anbar, but as the movement spread to Baghdad and other mixed areas, the prime minister became increasingly nervous. Unlike the tribes of Anbar, many of the newly formed SOIs contained members of Sunni insurgent groups-individuals that al-Maliki and his advisors viewed as irredeemable terrorists.

In the lead-up to his September 2007 testimony before Congress, Petraeus attempted to get al-Maliki to reach out to the growing number of SOI groups and begin integrating them into the ISF. After considerable cajoling, al-Maliki relented, but Petraeus could only get the prime minister to authorize integrating about 1,500 sois from rural Abu Ghraib, on the western outskirts of Baghdad. Even then, as Robinson describes, the al-Maliki government slow-rolled the process. They blamed Abu Ghraib's SOIs for attacks on Iraqi Army checkpoints they did not commit, and demanded that SOI recruits from Abu Ghraib be trained at a police training station in eastern Baghdad, requiring them to drive through Shia-militia-infested neighborhoods where they could easily be attacked. Little has changed. During my recent trip to Baghdad, discussions with U.S. military commanders and civilian officials, as well several SOI members, suggested that al-Maliki remains highly reluctant to integrate and employ Sunni security volunteers.

Building on gains from the surge also requires fair elections that give groups who boycotted the 2005 elections a shot at gaining local and national power. Most Sunni and many Sadrists are currently underrepresented in many provincial councils. As new leadership figures have begun to emerge at the local level, especially in Sunni areas, new provincial elections are vital to enhance government legitimacy and provide nonviolent channels for political competition. The United States must also make clear that provincial elections should be relatively free of intimidation by all parties. In this respect, recent Iraqi government offensives in Basra and Maysan province are troubling. The particular focus of these operations suggests that they were-at least partly-an attempt by isci and Dawa to use the ISF to delegitimize and weaken Sadrists and other rival political parties. A wider effort to use the ISF or other elements of state power to rig the vote against the Sadrists, Awakening groups or independents would play to the advantage of extremist factions calling for a return to violence. Another big test will be national elections expected in late 2009, which will provide a referendum on the ethno-sectarian parties that currently dominate the parliament.

The United States must also push the Iraqi government to develop a comprehensive plan to address the plight of the nearly 5 million Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons. As a consequence of growing economic hardship abroad and improved security in Baghdad, Iraqi refugees have begun trickling back into the country. Other internally displaced individuals are also beginning to return home, only to find families from a rival sect occupying their houses. The Iraqi government currently lacks a mechanism to deal with these disputes and otherwise prevent the influx from sparking a fresh round of bloodshed.

This is symptomatic of a wider problem highlighted by Robinson: the lack of essential services. As a consequence of inadequate capacity, corruption and lingering sectarian bias, the Iraqi government has made little headway in providing jobs and improving the delivery of electricity, sanitation, clean water and health care. Frustrations are growing in both Sunni and Shia areas, putting at risk hard-fought security gains.

Last but not least, a running theme through both the Filkins and Robinson volumes is the notion that lasting stability in Iraq is impossible without capable and neutral Iraqi security forces. In 2008, there were signs that the Iraqi Army was starting to find its feet and improving its capabilities. Still, the Iraqi Army will likely require substantial U.S. assistance for the foreseeable future even as it takes on greater responsibility for population security. Continuing to root out sectarianism in the National Police, integrating the SOIs and creating local police forces that have the trust of the communities they protect are the biggest challenges ahead.


THE NEXT American president will take office at a critical juncture in the Iraq War. Robinson advocates maintaining a significant force presence through the end of 2009, but the forty-fourth president will likely face irresistible pressures to begin a significant drawdown. Continued Iraqi public opposition to the U.S. presence and growing confidence in the ISF have already encouraged al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders to advocate a time horizon for a withdrawal and shift of U.S. forces to a purely support role. Unsustainable strains on U.S. ground forces and demands for additional troops for Afghanistan also create powerful pressures to draw down in Iraq. Thus, the real strategic issue is not whether the United States should or will withdraw, but rather how the United States can most effectively use its diminishing leverage to push the Iraqi government to reach much-needed political accords.

Some believe this is a hopeless game. In Unintended Consequences, Peter Galbraith dismisses the "Potemkin" progress produced by the surge, and argues that the war and any hope for a unified Iraq are irredeemably lost. For Galbraith, the differences between Sunni, Shia and Kurds "are fundamental and cannot be papered over" through various legislative accommodations: "If the Iraqis were willing and able to agree on a program of national reconciliation, revenue sharing, or constitutional amendments, they would have." Galbraith has long advocated a "soft partition" of Iraq and a vision of the country broadly in line with Kurdish interests, and he continues to do so here. He calls for the withdrawal of U.S. forces-leaving only a small presence behind in Kurdistan-and for letting the three major ethno-sectarian communities go their own way.

As it begins its withdrawal, Galbraith argues, the United States "needs a strategy to contain or, ideally, to prevent the disputed areas [especially Kirkuk] from becoming a flashpoint for new conflicts." American forces should also continue to pay the sois while helping "demarcate respective Shiite and Sunni zones in the capital [Baghdad], work out rules of engagement for the respective militias, and possibly sponsor efforts to professionalize the militias." But Galbraith offers no mechanism to effectively push Iraqi leaders to make these compromises, and, ultimately, he believes the United States lacks the necessary leverage to do so.

Despite its recent vintage, Galbraith's short book has the feel of a long op-ed that is strangely out of date. Certainly the gains from the surge have, in some quarters, been wildly exaggerated and there remain deep divisions and great conflict potential in Iraq. But the events of the past year counsel against resigning ourselves to the inevitable breakup of Iraq, and signing on to Galbraith's proposals would almost certainly make disintegration a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The problem is not that the United States lacks leverage over the Iraqi government; the problem is that the Bush administration has never effectively utilized that leverage. Since the formation of the al-Maliki government, Bush has resisted efforts to place conditions on U.S. support. In December 2006, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group recommended a drawdown of U.S. forces coupled with greater conditionality of remaining support. In deciding on the surge, Bush rejected both recommendations. As Robinson notes,

The political strategy was essentially to keep trying to persuade Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to do the right thing. He had promised to provide more Iraqi troops to secure Baghdad and to allow the targeting of Shia outlaws, but there was no implicit or explicit "or else" should he fail to do so. The main hope . . . was that if Sunni attacks were blunted, Shias would rein in their own sectarian agenda. But there was no appetite for imposing conditions on the Shia-led government.
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